Just Back From Morocco

 

Executive Suite at La Mamounia
An Executive Suite at La Mamounia has views over the Koutoubia.

In my two weeks in Morocco, I visited Casablanca, the imperial cities, the Atlas Mountains and the desert region and returned much impressed by what I saw. Morocco is an exotic destination with a rich culture and a well-developed infrastructure. For travelers interested in art, music, cuisine, history, adventure and exceptional shopping, Morocco is a must. This is also Morocco’s moment. There are many fantastic hotels opening over the next two years as Morocco looks to make a tourism push in the U.S.

Sightseeing in Morocco never tires. Fez, the country’s spiritual and cultural center, is an amazing city with over 1,200 years of history. The old part of the city is surrounded by nine miles of walls, encircling the Medina. Old Fez has nearly 200 mosques and medersas (schools of Koranic learning), studios and craftsmen making anything you can imagine. Note: Fez will remind you of Jerusalem and Aleppo. Morocco’s most sophisticated city, Marrakech, is an oasis in the desert valley, with stunning views of the Atlas Mountains in the background (covered in snow in winter/spring). This bustling city is two parts Palm Springs and Santa Fe and one part Saint-Tropez—a hot spot for well-traveled jetsetters. Morocco’s eastern region is on the edge of the Sahara desert. The spectacular sand dunes at Merzouga are indescribably beautiful. My guide arranged for an early pickup in Erfoud (the nearest town where you spend the night) and we drove to the edge of the desert, rode camels under the stars to the top of a sand dune, then waited for the sunrise. And there were the beautiful Berber villages and kasbahs, again on the edge of the Sahara. My Fave: Aït Ben Haddou, near Ouarzazate.

 

Maza in Casablanca at the Hassan II Mosque
Maza in Casablanca at the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world.


Hotel options are growing fast. Marrakech alone will welcome Mandarin Oriental Hotel Jnan Rahma, Royal Mansour, Raffles Marrakech, Four Seasons Marrakech and W Marrakech, all in the span of 24 months. In Fez, Sofitel Fes Palais Jamaï is a 19th-century palace, which has been enlarged and refurbished. Tip: Ask for a room facing the Medina, with superb views of Fez’s minarets and hotel gardens. Nothing beats the charm and the romance of the historical suites. Kasbah Hotel Xaluca Erfoud and Le Berbere Palace in Ouarzazate have comfortable accommodations and warm service, and are perfect take-off points to explore the Sahara. Meanwhile, Kasbah Tamadot, on the High Atlas mountains, overlooks a river valley below, a Berber village directly across and the mountains above (covered in snow during winter and spring—best times to go). This small, boutique resort has a wonderful staff and superb facilities. Stay in the main building, or in a fully equipped tent.

 

Kasbah Tamadot
Kasbah Tamadot on the High Atlas mountains looks out on a Berber village.


In Marrakech, La Mamounia is a legendary hotel, built in the 1920s. It has been transformed by French designer Jacques Garcia after a multimillion renovation. La Mamounia is Morocco’s top hotel and it’s easy to see why. The sense of arrival, the special atmosphere, service, dining, accommodations, décor and breathtaking 27-acre gardens of rose bushes and olive trees are without peer. You can get lost in the lobby, between lounges and shops and courtyards. Rooms are beautifully appointed with Moroccan tile and plasterwork. There are multiple dining options, and different room configurations, including garden duplex rooms, and grand suites and villas with different layouts.

Among other notable options in Marrakech, Royal Mansour will open this year, and quickly become an instant icon in the city. This property has 50-plus free-standing homes, or riads, each with multiple levels and rooftop terraces, complete with plunge pools and individual staff. The Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma, set to open in spring, is a splendid retreat 30 minutes outside of the city.

I traveled with Olive Branch Tours, and recommend their services. OBT has been in the business for decades, and can handle FITs, families, groups, adventure travelers and can create any holiday you can imagine in the country. The company makes all the arrangements on the ground—reserves transfers and excellent guides, and books hotels, restaurants and activities that are right for your clients. Most of all, they give you great advice on planning your trip. Having a good guide in Morocco is a must. For inquiries, contact Paul Nelson
(paul@olivebranchtours.com) in Casablanca.

Getting There: Royal Air Maroc is the only airline that flies nonstop from New York to Casablanca. If you’re flying via Europe, the best option is Iberia in Madrid, then nonstop to Casablanca/Tangiers/Marrakech. For more airline options into Marrakech, fly into Casablanca and then drive two-and-a-half hours to the city. This is a much quicker option than waiting for a connecting domestic flight.

 

Royal Mansour’s rooftop patio
Royal Mansour’s rooftop patio. The hotel, and its 50 riads, is set to open this year.